What’s the dam problem with gigantic developmentalism?

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Jawaharlal Nehru recognised the “disease of gigantism” which can eat up time, energy, resources, and livelihoods, and furthermore, create even greater loss by rendering the infrastructure project unwieldy and under-utilised.

The Hirakud dam, for all its gigantism, could not ensure its irrigation potential was fulfilled. It was impeded by an even sturdier barrier than itself — local belief. | PTI

Alluding to Big Dams in The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani wrote that in the 1950s, India fell in love with concrete. While inaugurating the Bhakra Nangal project in 1954, Nehru called dams the temples of modern India but by 1958, he seemingly had a change of heart. In a speech that has become a staple of anti–big dam activism, he lamented the “disease of gigantism” that afflicted India’s development projects, addressing engineers at the Central Board of Irrigation and Power.

This change of heart was reflective of the end of the optimism of the 1950s, as India’s Second Five Year Plan (1956-61) seemed to be running into serious difficulties. More than any other sector, irrigation (through dams but also through modes like tanks and tubewells) was at the centre of the early post-colonial developmental state’s efforts. And therefore, understanding the late 1950s irrigation crisis is key to understanding this first big disappointment of post-colonial developmentalism.


Post-war India invested heavily in dam projects. But by the late 1950s, these ran into several difficulties as post-war development-enthusiasts had set too ambitious a target. They sought to increase the canal-irrigated acreage by nearly 50% in five years; a relatively similar expansion had taken over 20 years in early 20th-Century British India. Much of that increase came from provinces, such as Punjab, that had well-developed irrigation departments. But post-colonial plans included States such as Madhya Pradesh, which lacked experience. The last two decades of the Raj had seen little new canal-building, resulting in Chief Engineers reaching their positions with sparse experience in construction.

But the problem ran deeper. While engineers equated the creation of irrigation potential with the mere construction of structures for storing or diverting water or of distributaries to outlets capable of irrigating a couple hundred acres each, actual utilisation required the building of channels right up to the cultivators’ fields. Figures published in the Third Plan Document placed the utilisation of the new potential created at just 48% in 1955-56. From the late 1950s to the present day, this crisis occupies centre stage in the discourse on large-scale irrigation systems in India.

This perceived crisis too was in part a function of expecting too much too fast. In the late 1940s, the economist D.R. Gadgil wrote that at least 30 years were required for an irrigation project to produce its full benefit. In contrast, the National Development Council’s Committee on Plan Projects deemed even ten years as a “leisurely pace” only justified “in the olden days”.

A few spectacular failures contributed significantly to the poor pan-India picture; a case in point was the Kakrapar project in Gujarat, whose Superintending Engineer himself described it as a “very expensive one which had miserably failed to serve its original objective and utility”. It was the first project which was carried out by the new Central Water and Power Commission (CWPC) rather than the provincial government. A weir was sanctioned by the Bombay government in 1949, but the CWPC soon modified the project to a dam costing five times as much. After some of the work had been carried out, it was decided to revert to a weir, making for great difficulties in reconciling various hydraulic features. The design was changed yet again to the construction of both a dam as well as a weir. Acute staff shortages resulted after the Bombay government took over the project as most engineers opted to return to the CWPC. Irrigation potential was first created in 1958-59, and as late as 1963-64 less than a quarter of the potential was utilised.

The underutilisation had a complex set of reasons but engineers usually emphasised on the problem of constructing field channels as the culprit, the onus thereby being placed on cultivators. The fact that government channels themselves were poorly maintained, however, prompted cultivators to ask how they were to maintain their channels, if the government, with all its resources, could not maintain its own. Even where field channels were built, improper design often meant that water did not reach the fields.


While the irrigation bureaucracy sought to evade responsibility by reducing the problem to the construction of field channels, a study by the Committee on Plan Projects emphasised that the focus on field channels was a “red herring” which diverted attention from the real problem; the lack of a profitable cropping pattern: “If a cultivator can be given a crop that yields to him a substantial income, he was willing to construct field channels himself.”

Project planners’ inadequate understanding of agriculture and their consequent inability to fulfil the irrigation needs of their crops was reflected in the very concept of irrigation potential — this was declared annually rather than season-wise as would be agriculturally appropriate; the mere physical availability of water was taken as synonymous with potential for irrigation. Moreover, the prescribed cropping pattern might have called for lightly-irrigated crops but cultivators’ preference for wet cropping would result in there not being enough water for the tail end of the season.

Cultivators across the country showed great variance in their approach to irrigation. This was reflected most spectacularly in the fact that only 61% of the potential created had been utilised by 1971 in Bihar, which ranked 2nd in potential created, while Punjab, ranking a distant 7th, had utilised 97% of its potential. In Coimbatore, peasants paid not only for the water of the Lower Bhavani project, but also heavy fines to defy water rationing and irrigate paddy. In Raichur, Mysore, which received water from the Tungabhadra Project, however, even farmers through whose property the channels passed sometimes did not irrigate, despite heavy propaganda and the water being offered free of charge. The Hirakud project in Odisha was to enable two crops of paddy, but local belief held that the soil could not take two paddy crops. In one village, an extension officer went on hunger strike to convince farmers to sow a second crop.

But the indifferent response to irrigation was not merely due to superstition or a lack of experience. Villages in Andhra’s Kurnool district, which were to benefit from the Tungabhadra project, demonstrated this. Peasants there had long been irrigating their fields from the Kurnool-Cuddapa Canal, which had been built in 1871. However, they expressed satisfaction with their existing irrigated acreage and exhibited no desire to irrigate more land. To the journalist Kusum Nair, who wrote an influential study on “the human element in Indian development” called Blossoms in the Dust (1961), this variance in response negated the assumption, implicit in the developmental process, that given equal opportunity, incentive and resources, all communities and individuals would respond similarly. To her, these differences had roots in traditional beliefs about work, surplus-production and diet. She thus argued that it was easier to build a million-ton steel plant than to change a man’s outlook on irrigation, which she called “the oldest and most elementary techniques” in agriculture.


This crisis of high cost, slow construction and slower utilisation was the context for Nehru’s famed “disease of gigantism” speech. Addressing the Central Board of Irrigation and Power in 1958, he emphasized the problem of utilisation:

On one side, we carry out irrigation and put more and more water for fresh areas, while on the other side land goes out of cultivation due to waterlogging... it is bad engineering if you cannot hold what you have already got in the process of acquiring more... the engineer may say “I have done my job by creating these resources; it is up to somebody else to utilise them”. This is partly true, but not wholly true... No plan should proceed as it did in the old days without the utilisation part being worked out. I have been hearing of the difficulties as to the utilisation part. For instance, you dig a canal but the channels to take it to the village areas where they are needed are not ready. It is happening all over the place in India. It surprises me that there is such lack of coordination. It is not the fault of the engineers; it may be the fault of other departments, of State Governments. But I think engineers should not keep aloof from them. It should be a part of their work to see that the resources are utilised.

However, Nehru’s speech went beyond mere critique, to lay out something of a tentative new development vision:

The cost of a small project has to be judged after taking into account all the social upsets connected with the enormous concentration of national energy, all the national upsets, upsets of people moving out and their rehabilitation and many other things, associated with a big project... I merely wish … to replace the balance in our thinking which has shifted too much towards gigantic schemes. State Governments are constantly pressing our Government, our Planning Commission, for various schemes- all huge schemes — and they have a right to do so. But this is all the relic to gigantism to which we have fallen prey. We have to realise that we can meet our problems much more rapidly and efficiently by taking up a large number of small schemes, especially when the time involved in a small scheme is much less and the results obtained are rapid. Further, in those small schemes you can get a good deal of what is called public co-operation and, therefore, there is much social value in associating people with such small schemes...


The editors of the venerable Indian Journal of Power and River Valley Development founded by the acclaimed physicist Meghnad Saha in the 1930s took exception to Nehru’s charge and argued that it was wrong to single out irrigation engineers as victims of the “disease of gigantism” when “all sections of the national elite… were equally affected by the virus”. This “craze for bigness” was not confined to India but afflicted the U.S. and the USSR as well, they claimed; according to them, the only difference was that they could afford it and India couldn’t.

This disillusionment had some impact on India’s Third Five Year Plan, in its emphasis on the utilisation and full development of existing projects before committing to new projects, as well as its emphasis on minor irrigation and rural electrification to energise groundwater pumps. A tubewell revolution heavily backed by the state, which began in the late 1960s (the Green Revolution was actually a tubewell revolution), transformed the landscape of Indian irrigation; with small groundwater pumps accounting for nearly two-thirds of India’s irrigated acreage today. However, despite substantial state support to the private tubewell revolution, irrigation planners in India continued to indulge the national disease of gigantism in the coming decades. In 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi echoed his grandfather’s words from nearly 30 years ago:

The situation today is that, since 1951, 246 big surface-irrigation projects have been initiated. Only 65 of these have been completed, 181 are still under construction... We have poured money out. The people have got nothing back: no irrigation, no water, no increase in production, no help in their daily life.

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